J.G. Ballard: poet or prophet?

I’ll give the game away right at the start by stating that I think Ballard is much more obviously and convincingly a prose poet than he is a social ‘prophet’.

The argument

Ballard is routinely and predictably described as a ‘prophet’, by reviewers, critics, fans and academics. The Atrocity Exhibition is described on the back as:

One of the most prophetic, enigmatic and original works of fiction of the late-twentieth century.

The Atrocity Exhibition is Ballard’s most concentrated book – a prophetic masterpiece. (Introduction by V. Vale & Andrea Juno)

But was he, though? There are several reasons for thinking not:

1. A prophet of what, exactly?

Ballard’s work divides pretty neatly into two types: there’s the science fiction which includes his early disaster novels and most of his short stories, many of which are wildly speculative and set in catastrophic futures – and then the later novels, from around 1970 onwards, which are increasingly rooted in the reality of the present day with its motorways, high rise buildings, advertising billboards and gated communities in the South of France., although weird futures continue to crop up in his short stories…

When people say ‘prophetic’ they’re generally talking about the latter works. And what do they mean? They mean that Ballard described in searing, super-vivid prose the feeling of being overloaded by media stimuli, the alienating experience of inhabiting bleak modern concrete urban environments, the terror which sometimes comes over you when you find yourself trapped in an eight-lane highway packed with sleek metal boxes hurtling past at inhuman speeds.

He captured and conveyed that sense of nervous breakdown in a series of mind-blowing semi-experimental novels from 1970 to 75, being The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, Concrete Island and High Rise. Each of these deals very intensely with nervous breakdown, physical and moral collapse which derives directly from the inhumane modern built environment.

And yet… forty years later, society hasn’t broken down, has it? People now accept modern architecture and the great sweep of motorway flyovers carving through their cities. It can still be painted as a dehumanising environment by artists and film-makers. But most people, most of the time, are not having nervous breakdowns and reverting to the primeval savagery depicted in High Rise.

And many of the specific aspects of his urban fiction feel very dated now.

Take the images of Vietnam which thread through The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash. Vietnam was the first TV war and in all probability the last, as every Western government saw what giving unfettered access to reporters and TV journalists did i.e. eroded domestic support. In my reviews of the career of Don McCullin I note that he several times says how disappointed he was not to be allowed to accompany the Falkland Islands task force: the government had learned its lesson; only tame journalists whose access could be controlled and monitored were allowed along.

The British have been involved in a number of conflicts since – Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Iraq twice, Afghanistan –  but they have been completely controlled and packaged by governments and willing broadcasters. The really bad craziness which spilled into the living rooms of the average suburbanite, and was an important component in the hysterical mood of those novels, is long, long gone.

TV itself has also been utterly internalised and neutralised. In his experimental books, television is new enough to prompt paragraphs of media studies-style shock and astonishment at the bizarreness of the medium itself interrupting footage of burning villages to bring us commercials about bath cleaner.

But both ends of this spectrum have been blunted. We rarely if ever see the kind of war scenes Ballard is invoking; and everybody has learned to tune out the ads. The advent of the internet means that you can binge watch entire series of dramas or soaps without ever seeing an ad. there are a lot of aspects to this, but one is that the average punter is much more in control, instead of being bombarded with shocking images like the subjects of some extreme social experiment, which is how people appear in those novels.

Similarly, huge roadside billboards were relatively new in the 1960s but, again, old hat by now. Even the TV-style moving ads on the Tube are easy to blank out and ignore.

In other words, a lot of the elements Ballard described with such fantastically super-charged prose poetry from 1966 to 1973 are now almost over-familiar and bereft of threat. Ask my kids if they feel the saturated mediascape is giving them a nervous breakdown and (if you can get them to lift their eyes from the latest Netflix binge-watch) they’ll laugh in your face.

But his fans – and others who plough the same kind of furrow, either as media studies-type academics or contemporary writers – persist in focusing on these aspects of his work.

In his introduction to the 2014 edition of The Atrocity Exhibition, the novelist Hari Kunzru doggedly repeats this idea, that Ballard’s books are mind-expanding, shock revelations which still ‘disturb’ and ‘interrogate’ and ‘undermine’ reality or modern society and all the other tired, familiar art house, would-be ‘radical’, art-curator terminology.

Kunzru slots Ballard into the same, tired old lineage, the same dusty avant-garde genealogy which reaches back to the French bourgeoisie-shockers, via Dada and the Surrealists, to the Beats in the 1950s, the Situationists in the 1960s, and so tiredly on.

But how can something be avant-garde if it’s 50 years behind the times?

I keep reading political commentators saying Labour lost the 2019 election because they were still talking the language of the 1960s, or even of the Victorian era – trapped in the delusion that there is one, homogeneous, cloth-capped, Northern working class which will always give them their vote, come what may. Wrong. The world has changed.

I can’t help feeling the same about the so-called avant-garde tradition. Nowadays talk of Dada and the Situationists feels like the treasured possession of old and out-of-date intellectuals, solemnly showing you a box of faded newspaper cuttings from the mid-1960s as if they bear any relation to the situation and experiences of the present day.

‘Look at the taboo-busting way his characters arrange prostitutes in the posture of car crash victims’, the ageing college lecturer tells us, everso proud of his yoof credentials.

The reality is that the future hasn’t shocked, disturbed, unsettled or traumatised the human spirit anywhere near as much as the solemn talk of transgressive avant-gardes would have us believe. The Archers is still running, as is Coronation Street. They still wave flags at the Last Night of the Proms. Top of the bill at this year’s Glastonbury? Paul McCartney and Diana Ross.

The future is now and people are loving it, streaming their favourite shows, chatting away to Alexa, listening to any music from anywhere at the click of a button, ordering up tasty Deliveroo meals, ordering an Uber to go home after a great night out, and generally living it up.

Compared to the wholesale way the vast majority of the population owns and revels in our technological present, Kunzru proudly telling us how excited Michael Moorcock was in 1966 when he found that the front room of Ballard’s flat was covered in a collage of pages cut out from Chemistry News seems ridiculous. Yes, granddad. We’ve seen your collection of 1960s literary magazines before, granddad. Yes, they’re very interesting, granddad. But now it’s time for your medication and your nap.

2. Two specific ways Ballard was not prophetic

Prophetic means: ‘accurately predicting what will happen in the future’. I’m now looking at the other strand in Ballard’s work, the overtly science fiction strand. Rereading these stories, mostly about dystopian futures, kept making me thing two obvious points.

1. Population boom In all of Ballard’s futures, the population has vanished. In the Ultimate City the population of the world has collapsed, in Low-Flying Aircraft humanity is dying out, in Cage of Sand whole areas of the world have been abandoned, in Chronopolis the big cities have been abandoned. Abandoned cities and terminal beaches, those are the familar zones of Ballard’s imaginarium.

But it’s simple. The world hasn’t emptied. the human population hasn’t plummeted. the exact opposite has happened. In 1970 when the Atrocity Exhibition was published the global population was 3.7 billion. Fifty years later it has doubled to 7.5 billion and counting.

Insofar as Ballard’s imaginary futures depict a world emptied of humans it is not only not prophetic, it is diametrically wrong. A truly avant-garde prose would be trying to grapple, not with what it is to live in abandoned cities occupied by a handful of dazed inhabitants – but what it’s like to live in mega-cities like Tokyo, Delhi, Shanghai. Something more like William Gibson’s well-named ‘Sprawl’ trilogy.

2. Posh characters To the end of his writing carer Ballard described posh, middle or upper-middle-class characters, typified by the large number of educated, open-minded doctors who litter his stories. In a way the typical thing about High Rise is not that the characters end up descending to the depths of bestial depravity, but that they are all such pukka, posh English chaps and chapesses.

This is indicated throughout by his rather haphazard way with names so that lots of the characters have very run-of-the-mill and very English names (Talbot, Vaughan, Clifton and Ransom spring to mind).

I’m not criticising him for describing an almost 100% white middle class milieu, not at all. I’m just pointing out that it is the other, large element of his writing which was diametrically wrong. Society hasn’t carried on consisting of pukka white chaps and chapesses. The exact opposite has happened. Britain has been inundated with immigrants (and I don’t mean just ones with different colour skins, but nearly a million Poles, for example). Our society, and most Western societies have become chaotically multicultural and multilingual and show every sign of continuing in this direction.

I am not criticising Ballard for writing about the social class and kind of people he knew best, not at all. I’m just saying that those of his private and academic fans who try to hold him up as a prophet, a predictor of the future, have to take account of the fact that two of the central imaginative pillars of his fiction didn’t only not come true, but the diametric opposite took place.

3. An argument against deifying writers

Anyway, in my opinion the deifying or worshipping of writers is to be resisted. It is a primitive psychological tendency, it is a way of abdicating our own responsibility to think for ourselves.

Writers should be credited as writers, but not necessarily as thinkers. As thinkers, writers are often very charismatic, but almost always wrong. Morally wrong, yes, though that’s open to endless debate. But more often plain, factually wrong.

Dickens thought that universal free education would eradicate poverty. Wrong. Morris thought a Marxist revolution would liberate the working classes. Wrong. Dostoyevsky though Russia must turn its back on the decadent West to assert its Slavic identity. Wrong. Tolstoy thought we should relinquish all our belongings and live like peasants. Wrong. Gorky thought Lenin was the saviour of the poor. Wrong. Pound thought Mussolini would be a patron of the arts like a Renaissance prince. Kipling thought the British Empire was vital to raise the lesser breeds in our countless colonies. Wrong. Eliot thought Britain would be better off as a religious and ethnically homogeneous kingdom, preferably with few if any Jews. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

In my opinion:

  1. Beware of taking any writer as a moral or political inspiration
  2. Judge writers by the quality of their writing, not by their beliefs or pontificating – their beliefs will soon become out of date or controversial or come to seem ludicrous: but their writing, if it genuinely contributes to the life of the language, will live

As Oscar Wilde said, there’s no such thing as moral or immoral writing, there is only good or bad writing.

Ballard the prose poet

So for me, the thing to do is leave these political and ‘moral’ squabbles behind and focus on what Ballard undoubtedly is, which is a creator of some of the most astonishing prose poetry ever written.

What links every element of his career – the disaster novels, the sci-fi stories and the urban nightmare series – is his extraordinary ability to make the English language sit up and beg, dance to his tune, perform extreme sports, coasteer and freebase.

Somewhere Ezra Pound says you ultimately judge a poet by the integrity of his lines, and there are hundreds of breath-taking lines in Ballard, lines no-one else could have written and which take you into wonderful, liberating new realms of language and imagination.

All day he had been building his bizarre antenna on the roof of the apartment block, staring into the sky as if trying to force a corridor to the sun.

Meanwhile the quasars burned dimly from the dark peaks of the universe, sections of his brain reborn in the island galaxies.

Bonfires of Jackie’s face burn among the reservoirs of Staines and Shepperton. With luck he finds a job on one of the municipal disposal teams, warms his hands at a brazier of enigmatic eyes. At night he sleeps beneath an unlit bonfire of breasts.

An airliner rose from the runway four hundred yards to our left, wired by its nervous engines to the dark air.

Catherine peered into my face, as if squinting through the window of a diving helmet.

The nodes of glass scattered on the ground glinted like pieces of discredited coinage.

Laing remembered the stale air in his apartment, tepid with the smell of his own body. By comparison, the brilliant light reflected off the chromium trim of the hundreds of cars filled the air with knives.

The previous night, as he prepared to leave, settling his sons and testing the locks on the doors, Helen had suddenly embraced him, as if wanting him to stay. The muscles of her thin face had moved through an irregular sequence of tremors, like tumblers trying to fall into place.

He resented speaking to Charlotte or to anyone else, as if words introduced the wrong set of meanings into everything.

On page after page Ballard is capable of writing sentences which zing with linguistic verve but also push, exercise and stretch your imagination. Maybe he was a ‘prophet’, you can make a case for or against. but without doubt he was one of the most poetic writers of English prose who ever lived, so plain and factual in appearance, and yet so glitteringly brilliant.


Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

All I Know Is What Is On The Internet @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Some exhibitions I respond to personally and emotionally; some I respond to intellectually, picking up on ideas or theories; and some leave me stone cold.

This is the text from the press release for All I Know Is What Is On The Internet.

All I Know Is What Is On The Internet presents the work of 11 contemporary artists and groups seeking to map, visualise and question the cultural dynamics of 21st century image culture.

Importantly, it investigates the systems through which today’s photographic images multiply online and asks what new forms of value, knowledge, meaning and labour arise from this endless (re)circulation of content.

Traditionally, photography has played a central role in documenting the world and helping us understand our place within it. However, in a social media age, the problem of understanding an individual photograph is being overwhelmed by the industrial challenge of processing millions of images within a frantically accelerated timeframe. Visual knowledge and authenticity are now inextricably linked to a ‘like’ economy, subject to the (largely invisible) actions of bots, crowdsourced workers, Western tech companies and ‘intelligent’ machines.

This exhibition focuses on the human labour and technical infrastructure required to sustain the web’s 24/7 content feed. The collected works explore the so-called ‘democratisation’ of information, and ask in whose interest this narrative serves. Paying attention to the neglected corners of digital culture, the artists here reveal the role of content moderators, book scanners, Google Street View photographers and everyday users in keeping images in circulation.

The exhibition considers the changing status of photography, as well as the agency of the photographer and the role of the viewer within this new landscape. The artists involved draw attention to the neglected corners of image production, making visible the vast infrastructure of digital platforms and human labour required to support the endless churn of selfies, cat pics and memes.

Taking its title from a Donald Trump quote, All I Know Is What’s On The Internet considers the digital conditions under which photography is produced , and the bodies and machines which help automate the flow of visual content online. Set against Silicon Valley’s desire to automate the processing of human knowledge, the exhibition seeks to make visible ‘the human in the algorithm’.

All I Know Is What’s On The Internet presents a radical exploration of photography when the boundaries between truth and fiction, machine and human are being increasingly called into question.

#Brigading_Conceit

The enormousness of the subject they’re tackling meant that each exhibit, object or installation required a lot of explanation. Take #Brigading_Conceit (2018) by Constant Dullaart.

#Brigading_Conceit (2018) by Constant Dullaart. Aluminium, automotive coating, forex, SIM cards, vesa mounts. Courtesy of Upstream Gallery Amsterdam

#Brigading_Conceit (2018) by Constant Dullaart. Aluminium, automotive coating, forex, SIM cards, vesa mounts. Courtesy of Upstream Gallery Amsterdam

It’s a very big installation hanging on a wall and looks, to me, like the cover of a laptop computer. In fact:

#Brigading_Conceit uses some of the thousands of SIM cards the artist purchased while building an army of fake followers on Facebook and Instagram. The most valuable fake accounts are PVAs (Phone Verified Accounts) which are registered on phone numbers bought in bulk in multiple countries. After verifying the account via SMS message, the SIM cards are often sold for the scrap value of the gold in the chip. Providing physical evidence of the industrial scale in which fake accounts are made, Dullart embeds these SIMs  in different materials, using arrangements reminiscent of army formations. The resulting compositions are representations of brigades made from artificial identities, a series of ‘standing armies’ to be deployed in ongoing and future information wars. Each image of the work tagged and uploaded to Instagram will attract the attention of Dullart’s army, who will bestow likes and automated comments. The semi-reflective surface reveals the form of each photographer whilst concealing their vanity in the effort of harvesting social feedback.

Quite a lot to take in, isn’t it?

And then, having read it all, looking back up at this butterfly made of silver laptop covers… what exactly are you to think? (It crossed my mind that Dullart might be a spoof name: Dull Art.)

IOCOSE A Crowded Apocalypse

IOCOSE A Crowded Apocalypse (2012).

IOCOSE A Crowded Apocalypse (2012)

This is, as you can see, a set of 18 photos arranged in three rows and six columns. As the wall label explains:

Crowdsourcing platforms such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk provide a means for outsourcing small, repetitive tasks (‘micro-tasks’) to a distributed online workforce. These platforms were used by IOCOSE to assemble a crowd which would create its own conspiracy and then protest against its protagonists and effects. Firstly, the artists hired hundreds of anonymous workers to generate a set of symbols, companies, religious groups and mythical creatures. These were combined into a series of slogans and conspiracy theories by another set of workers. In the final stage, further workers photographed themselves taking to the streets protesting against this global conspiracy.

By operating as ‘artificial artificial intelligence’ (as Amazon touts its platform) the workers transform a practice of activism into a mechanical process. The result is a collection of singular, anonymous protests, whose slogans and claims barely makes sense. The workers, and the people around them, appear at the same time as victims and beneficiaries, actors and spectators of network technologies.

Nothing Personal

Or take the wall of the gallery which was completely covered in a ‘wallpaper’ collage of imagery and texts from the brave new digital world, and titled Nothing Personal (2014-15) by Mari Bastashevski.

Nothing Personal (2014-15) by Mari Bastashevski

Nothing Personal (2014-15) by Mari Bastashevski

Apparently,

In the past decade, the industry that satisfies governments’ demands for surveillance of mass communications has skyrocketed, and it is one of today’s most rapidly expanding markets. Most surveillance technologies are produced by American, European and Israeli companies and sold to anonymous clients and law enforcement agencies across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

While most of these products are undetectable by design, the industry has developed a collective corporate aesthetic using detached technical jargon, stock photography and sanitised clip-art. Nothing Personal presents material from over 300 surveillance companies, including fragment of correspondence between their employees and clients the artist found online.

On closer inspection, the people working within these companies – from the spaces they occupy – to the emails they send – seem to match the very image of the ‘enemy’ depicted by their own marketing.

World Brain

World Brain (2015) is an installation of logs of wood, scattered with wood chip surrounded by small piles of books, and video screens on the wall, the work of Degoutin & Wagon.

Installation view of World Brain (2015) by Degoutin & Wagon

Installation view of World Brain (2015) by Degoutin & Wagon

Explanation:

World Brain is a sprawling journey into the architecture of data centres, the collective intelligence of kittens, high-frequency trading and the creation of transhuman rats. Mixing documentary film and fiction, the artists explore the utopian dreams and ideologies which underpin the idea of a worldwide network and the development of collective intelligence.

The film is presented here is the film in two parts, with accompanying literature. Part one (21 mins 8 secs) is a journey into the physical spaces of the Internet exploring the complex structure of global Internet traffic. The second part (51 mins 54 secs) follows the wanderings of a group of researchers who try to survive in the forest using Wikipedia, with the ultimate aim of securing the survival of humankind.

World Brain is also available to watch online at: tpg.org.uk/worldbrain

Ironically, when I tried to access this URL, I found the video is unavailable and got this message:

This video contains content from Arte, who has blocked it in your country on copyright grounds.

Which may, or may not, be part of the work itself. Or an ironic comment on the work. Or the internet. Or something.

So this is an intensely cerebral exhibition, in the sense that you really have to focus on each of the works, read the explanatory text carefully, and then bring quite a lot of intelligence and knowledge of the subject to bear on each piece to assess whether they ‘work’ for you.

A view

I have spent the past eight years working on the intranets and public websites and password-protected portals of four British government departments and agencies.

I have attended countless meetings, seminars and conferences about website design, data management and security, about government usage of social media, about how to convey messages or get users hooked on your website, and so on.

In fact I myself ran a 6-month programme of weekly seminars for the content team of a big government website on subjects like how to use Facebook and the rest of social media to transmit government messages, how to gather data about users, analyse and convey messages better, etc.

And for two years I was a data analyst on the password-protected portal of a major UK government portal, doing elaborate number crunching, producing infographics for all sorts of data, and merrily ‘repositioning’ the numbers to support the ‘official narrative’ put out by our department.

So I have a reasonable grasp of digital issues and I have, from the start, been extremely sceptical about the internet, about social media, and especially about mobile phone technology.

I refuse to own a smartphone because I a) don’t want to become addicted b) I want to relate to the world around me instead of staring at a tiny screen all the time c) I don’t want to be bugged, surveilled, followed and have all my personal data harvested.

All in all, I am confident that I understand the world these artists are portraying and that I understand a lot of the issues they’re addressing. I have grappled in person with some of them, as part of my job.

But I found it hard to get very worked up about any of the actual art on show and went away wondering why.

I think it’s something to do with accessibility. Web accessibility is a subject I’ve worked with personally, trying to present government information more clearly, both visually and textually. Even the dimmest of users must be able to read the text and use the transactions on a government website.

Whereas hardly any of the works on display here seemed very accessible. None of them leapt straight out ans made me think, ‘Yes, that’s the issue, that’s what we need to be saying / exploring / addressing’.

Instead I found it ironic that in the supposed Age of the Image, all of these works and installations required such a lot of text to get their point across.

There were quite a few younger visitors in evidence (unlike most of the ‘traditional’ art exhibitions I visit, which are dominated by old age pensioners).

Maybe this is art for a younger generation than me, accustomed to swiping screens, skimming information, cherry picking text. Maybe a lot of these issues and ideas will be new to them, or they are so accustomed to smartphones and apps and processing information, that the works will leap out and say something meaningful to them.

My over-riding sense of the Digital Age we live in is that most people, by now, know that Amazon, Facebook, twitter, and their phone providers are morally compromised, tax-evading, High Street-destroying, personal-information-harvesting creepy multinational companies, but…

It’s just so handy being able to order something from Amazon Prime, or send messages to your Facebook group, or share photos of your party on Instagram…

And none of the revelations about how smartphones track your movements and your conversations seem to have made the slightest dent in smartphone ownership or usage.

My sense is that most people just don’t care what iniquities these companies carry out, as long as their stuff turns up next day and they can share their photos for free.

It was a brave effort to put on an exhibition like this. I didn’t really like the works on show. Maybe others will.

Participating artists

  • Mari Bastashevski
  • Constant Dullaart
  • IOCOSE
  • Stephanie Kneissl & Max Lackner
  • Eva & Franco Mattes
  • Silvio Lorusso & Sebastian Schmieg
  • Winnie Soon
  • Emilio Vavarella
  • Stéphane Degoutin & Gwenola Wagon
  • Andrew Norman Wilson
  • Miao Ying

Related links

Reviews of other Photographers’ Gallery exhibitions

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